Early optimism abounds at USC

Plenty of things could have gone wrong for USC on Saturday against Fresno State. I wasn’t nervous, but I certainly had memories of last year’s Washington State game fresh in my mind as I walked into the Coliseum for another home opener.

Very little did go wrong.

Evident by their performance and the 52-13 final score, the Trojans did not underestimate the Bulldogs like they did the Cougars last season, despite a week filled with off-the-field distractions. The Trojans took care of business, sending a large portion of the dehydrated student section confidently to the exits at halftime with a 31-7 lead. Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler didn’t call it a day until the fourth quarter — when redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne took over under center — but there was very little doubt that the Trojans came to play after Kessler led the Trojans on a 17-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that took just over six minutes off the clock to start the game and the season.

It’s way too early to offer any real assessment of the team. As college football’s resident cranky grandpa Lou Holtz said oh-so-eloquently over the weekend, per Grantland’s Holly Anderson, predicting the path of a team after one game is like predicting the career path of an infant. It’s the kind of critical analysis that must have led Notre Dame to a national championship in 1988.

“Is it gonna be a doctor? I don’t know; it’s a baby.”

The analogy rings true for USC. Though the team collectively did some serious growing up this past week of practice and certainly looked mature beyond its years, things are only going to get harder.

With all due respect to Fresno State, this was a team USC beat last year in the Las Vegas Bowl 45-20 — and that was while the Bulldogs still had star quarterback Derek Carr, who was just named the starter as a rookie for the Oakland Raiders. Fresno State may have won the Mountain West Conference last year, but the Mountain West has nothing on the Pac-12.

Additionally, while the team handled both of the major off-field distractions brilliantly, and that level of mental fortitude is consistent with what we saw in last year’s coaching carousel, more distractions are bound to pop up.

Players said all the right things about the Josh Shaw and Anthony Brown incidents to the media leading up to the game, then let their play do the real talking on Saturday.

But if last year is any indication, those two incidents are far from the only bumps in the road USC will hit this year. In fact, those two incidents might not entirely be in the rearview mirror.

Players said after the game that it’s time to stop talking about Shaw and Brown; it’s time to move on. Though Brown likely will not come up again the rest of the year — and his incident would have fit more with Sports Illustrated’s “Signs of the Apocalypse” than national headlines if it happened independent of Shaw’s — Shaw’s certainly was a very big deal and is far from resolved.

We know at this point that his drowning rescue mission was a complete fabrication, but we still don’t know what actually happened or what led to him spraining both of his ankles. Maybe the most telling piece of information we do know is that he hired defense attorney Donald Etra, who has twice been hired by Snoop Dogg when the rapper faced felony charges. As I wrote earlier this year, however, we don’t know enough to offer a judgment until a jury of Shaw’s peers does so, and there’s a chance Shaw is completely innocent of any criminal activity.

The point is that Shaw’s incident will likely reappear over the course of the year. He might be indicted for a felony before the season ends; he might be reinstated to the team before the season ends. Neither could happen or both could happen.

It would not be unheard of for the team to avoid more injuries and win the other 11 games on its regular season schedule. Their highest-ranked opponent, UCLA, looked very vulnerable against an unranked Virginia team. But there will likely be more players who get hurt, other players who underperform and times when the Trojans find themselves trailing at halftime and need someone to step up. That will be the true test of USC’s character, and it might come this weekend in Palo Alto. USC certainly met the challenge of Stanford last year, though the team didn’t have a single comeback from a halftime deficit in 2013.

All signs, however, have been definitively positive through week one. Kessler looked very poised as the undisputed leader going into the season and avoided any interceptions.

A wide variety of true freshman appearing in their first-ever college football game made huge impacts, including Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith and Bryce Dixon. Some Facebook albums from the first tailgate likened football season to the most wonderful time of the year, and this batch of new first-year players feels a lot like a Christmas present in late August. Perhaps most importantly, head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff aced their first game plan, and his players seem to have total confidence in him.

It really is the most wonderful time of year, finally being back at school, seeing everyone again and coming together over the joy of another season of USC football.

It’s going to be an awesome year.


Luke Holthouse is a sophomore majoring in broadcast and digital journalism and policy, planning and development. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Luke at lholthous@usc.edu.